28 February, 2005 at 00:25 2 comments

Starting a Company – Superhacker + Phoneboy Philosophy

Lately I’ve been thinking about starting a company. Adam Rifkin has an excellent essay building on the wisdom of many others. Here is the excerpt from that which starts of with his getting reminded of this scene from Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters
The classic startup is fast and informal, with few people and little money. Those few people work very hard, and technology magnifies the effect of the decisions they make. If they win, they win big.
In a startup writing web-based applications, everything you associate with startups is taken to an extreme.
You can write and launch a product with even fewer people and even less money. You have to be even faster, and you can get away with being more informal. You can literally launch your product as three guys operating out of an apartment, with a server collocated at an ISP. We did.
Over time the teams have gotten smaller, faster, and more informal.
In 1960, software development meant a roomful of men with horn-rimmed glasses and narrow black neckties, industriously writing ten lines of code a day on IBM coding forms. In 1980, it was a team of eight to ten people wearing jeans to the office and typing into VT100s. Now it’s a couple of folks sitting in a living room with laptops. (And jeans turn out not to be the last word in informality.)
So how does a web-based application startup actually get started? Guy Kawasaki’s Art of the Start gives us good rules for getting going, such as – Think big. Don’t just do things 10% or 15% or 20% better. Think 10 times better. Think more dramatic improvement. Think different curve, not same curve. Think getting to the next curve. Think creating the next curve.
But my favorite Guy Kawasaki rule for getting going is,
You need to find soul-mates.
You know, in America, and particularly Silicon Valley, there is the myth of the sole entrepreneur. This is the Steve Jobs, the Henry Ford, the Anita Roddick, the Richard Branson, the Thomas Edison working alone, genius doing it by all by himself. And in fact, I think if you analyze even these companies history is wrong. All of those people had groups and were members of a team. History is wrong.
It is not about one person, the sole entrepreneur, it about the group of entrepreneurs. Hence my second recommendation is you need to find some soul mates, the people who are drinking the same Kool-Aid that you are. Find some soul mates.

Every person has strengths and weaknesses. The appeal of a partnership — even if the team is just a pair of people doing what they can to leverage the power of two — is a matching so well-suited that the pair’s strengths are more powerful than those of either individual, thereby reducing the effects of each individual’s foibles. Whereas finding a romantic partner is such a regular occurrence in our society that people couple all the time, finding a business partner who is truly complementary and thoroughly communicative and unquestionably trustworthy is a much more elusive achievement. And yet, there is tremendous value to a business person if s/he can find someone with whom s/he can triangulate issues, talk through everything, make decisions, and take actions. (Not to mention the benefits that stem from having someone who will always watch one’s back, who will push back gently, and who will amplify the shared message.)
This was the theme of the inaugural 106 Miles meeting that Joyce Park organized as part of her role at CommerceNet. Jeremy Zawodny wrote a nice summary of the event, which included several hours of hallway discussions over beer-and-pizza by entrepreneurial engineers from startups, eBay, Paypal, Yahoo, CNET, Walmart.com, Informatica, Silver Spring Networks, eScend, CommerceNet, TheServerSide.com, Technorati, WordPress, and JotSpot.
The featured guests were JotSpot’s founders, Joe Kraus and Graham Spencer, who prior to JotSpot founded Excite (with four other founders) and DigitalConsumer.org (which has over 50,000 members and is working to get passed into law its Consumer Technology Bill of Rights). In an informal roundtable discussion led by Rob Rodin, Joe and Graham discussed the finer points of starting a company as a team of two. The power of two is strong between Graham and Joe, who have been working together as business partners in three organizations in the last dozen years.
Before I get to the minutes of the discussion led by Rob between Joe and Graham and the audience, I want to give you some of my own thoughts about The Power Of Two, specifically as it relates to Founders.
Founders in and of themselves are interesting creatures, for they strive to do the most they can with the least amount of resources; most people just aren’t hard-wired to think in such a way.

Founders are people, too. Every Founder has strengths and weaknesses. So it is no surprise that some of the most successful technology startups began with a pair of Founders who could accentuate each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses; for example:
Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen
Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak
Cisco’s Sandy Lerner and Len Bosack
Yahoo’s Jerry Yang and David Filo
Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Intel had three Founders (Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove), and though I believe a lot of the principles of partnerships apply, there’s definitely a different dynamic with troikas than there is with partnerships of two. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples of Two Founders — and I’m going to save for another post my rant about how the most successful technology companies are those which kept the Founders at the top for many years.
The technical Founders of Excite had an affectionate nickname for Joe Kraus, Phoneboy. In a technology startup there are usually just two initial goals: engineering and sales. That is, Make something excellent, and get others to believe (and buy!). The “Phoneboy” (or, in some cases, “Phonegirl“) part of a founding team is the one who gets others to believe; s/he serves as the intrepid sidekick to the “Superhacker” — the one who gets things built. Sometimes a Two-Founder team divides the tasks: Apple’s Wozniak makes something excellent, and Jobs gets them to believe. Sometimes both individuals do some of each, as is the case (I believe) with Google’s Page and Brin. What’s important is not how the processes of making and selling are divided; what’s important is that the partnership is able to do both well enough — and communicate together well enough — that the flywheel can start turning and the combined endeavor is ready to sell, to build more, and to hire.
Hiring is perhaps the single most important thing a company can do, because even if a company figures out how to build something and how to sell it, the company is doomed if it cannot attract the right people to grow the team. Without a doubt, to paraphrase something I heard Rob Rodin tell me and Joyce,
The number one worry in business is human resource — when you really peel back all of the layers, it’s people who change the trajectory of what the business is doing and, more importantly, what the business can do.
Put another way, as Rob Rodin likes to say, If you see a turtle at the top of a pole, somebody probably put it there.
Now although it’s true that what you need to lay the tracks is different from what it takes to drive the train, you cannot get to the train stage without a solid foundation of well-placed tracks. That’s what the best Founders do: find a need and fill it. And I think it’s why it’s rare to find a solitary Founder of a technology startup: because rarely does a single person have the ability, the drive, and the time to do an excellent job of both the Superhacker and Phoneboy roles — two roles that are essential to the laying of the tracks. Note that a winning partnership need not be 50/50 — Rob Rodin notes that the most important thing is that they be there for each other, through good times and through bad times, taking care of each other and fighting the fight for each other. Because business is a relentless, uncompromising, amoral, darwinian, machiavellian environment in which philosophy is useless, theology is worse, and survival is never assured.
This is why often Superhacker assumes the alter ego of mild mannered geek by day — conserving his or her superpowers for when they are truly needed. And it’s why often Phoneboy needs to have far more tools in his (or her) utility belt than just a phone…”

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Matt  |  17 March, 2005 at 08:18

    Defintely got some insight in there, but the colored text is terribly distracting.

    Like

    Reply
  • 2. S 'naani' J  |  21 March, 2005 at 22:55

    Yes, this is is a good post thanks to Rafkin!
    And this post has been annotated and hence there are different colors…

    Like

    Reply

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